The Political Claim: When All Men Are Equal Because They Are Nothing

Brett Levinson
Binghamton University

Volume 15, 2024

Rousseau’s A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, otherwise known as the Second Discourse, argues that the source of social inequality is measurable equality, which measure is wealth and property.  The origin, more specifically, is the “first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society” (Discourse 45).  Civil society or civilization, according to Rousseau, generates the idea that human beings, each endowed with the property of “humanness,” in possession of this identity, are equal, which premise in turn introduces inequality.  Society is founded on an error, one in which identity is misrecognized as equality, which error justifies injustice.  If all, because men, are the same then each enjoys the equal right and aptitude both to claim and defend his property, that is, his common humanity.  Hence, when a given subject suffers injustice, he does so due to his own failure to measure up to others.  After all, he has been granted, as a man, the same capacities as these brethren.  Inequality is “just deserts,” an indicator of the difference among equals, or of justice as civil society, and in fact capitalism, renders it.

Yet if Second Discourse’s chief point is a political one, as the above suggests, why must Rousseau, Paul de Man asks in the essay “Metaphor (Second Discourse)” of Allegories of Reading, pass through extensive meditations on language in order to get there?  In Second Discourse Rousseau indeed imagines an original, denominative idiom to which primitive man availed himself.  In the system, oak tree A is A, tree B is B, C is C, and so on.  Since, according to Rousseau, an individual requires less learning and experience to apprehend differences than he does to intuit similarities—trees A, B, and C appear as three distinct things before they surface as one idea, such as the “woods”—the “pre-educated” primitive does not yet recur to the concepts that group distinctions into single units of apprehension.

One might suspect that this primitive language represents a pre-civilized, prelapsarian tongue, now lost, one in which words “say exactly what they mean.”  A means A; misunderstanding, which generates discord, the resolution of which is a chief reason for civil society, does not exist.  According to de Man, though, the premise is quite unsound.  Rousseau’s denominative language, in fact, represents an “entirely negative moment” or the “negation of language” (152).  For, in it, “all entities are the same, namely entities, to the extent that they differ from each other” (148).  If entity A is A, enduring in space and time, it is so as not B.  Yet if A and B are entities, making “all entities. . . . the same, namely entities,” difference (since all entities are the same: different) does not surface.  In a universe of entity entity entity, no entities exist, much less does a language that “literally” or sensibly captures them.

de Man continues his deliberation upon a primitive language, this “negation of language,” through an examination of the relation between the literal and figurative.  Speech in which A is A is in fact not literal but at once literal and metaphorical.  At the moment the oak is A, and word and thing coincide, A is assumed to be an “entity,” thus not simply A.  A as “entity” is clearly not false.  A is not more literally “A” than it is an “entity” or unit.  Entity is instead a metaphor.  Oak A is, at once, in one moment, figuratively an “entity” and literally oak A, separated from B within the totality of “entities.”  Equally A and an entity, A is different from itself, literal and figurative: “from the moment there is denomination, the conceptual metaphor of entity as difference is implied, and whenever there is metaphor, the literal denomination of a particular entity is inevitable” (148).

A string of disconnections, A, B, C, D, cannot surface without an appeal to a “‘necessary link’” (Allegories 292), a metaphor that unifies the parts into so many family relations, one bound to the next by virtue of the tie that they share.  A literal idiom is rendered conceivable by the figure that permits the parts to appear as members of one system, thereby as meaningful.  The condition of the literal, which is an appeal to the metaphorical, is that it not be (literal).  In the denominative tongue that Rousseau casts, A and B reference individual trees by means of the “‘necessary link’” of “entity.”  de Man places “necessary link” in quotations because the common that permits a language to stand as a realm of signification is not, in fact, “necessary” (nor does it necessarily “link”).  For if one oak is A, and a second is B, then any “entity” is C while C itself, as a name, is D, and D as a letter is E, and E as an open shape is F… without termination, oneness, or being.

de Man cannot locate, in Discourse on Inequality itself, a direct way to get from Rousseau’s intervention into language to the political conclusions of the treatise.  He thereby turns to Essay on the Origin of Language by means of which he later circles back to Second Discourse.  de Man selects a passage from Essay which describes primitive man’s first encounter with other men, prior to the notion “man.”  These “first men” apprehend the other men just as primitives perceive more generally: as set A that, as A, is not set B.  They call these specific beings “giants.”  The “giants” are not more numerous than are the primitives.  Primitives do not even possess, according to Rousseau’s text, the idea of number.  Nor, then, are the “giants” larger.  Nonetheless, the term “giant” is not randomly invented.  For, when confronting other men, the primitives experience genuine fear, a result of the spontaneous excitement that displaces the objective situation.  They thus feel as if the others are giants.

A “giant,” of course, is a fictitious being.  Yet insofar as the signifier is used to designate the characters that stand before primitive man, it is not untrue.  The primitive, we said, actually feels fright.  The name “giant” means, literally, “I am afraid,” a genuine internal sentiment.  The “giants,” for the primitives, possess a “definite, proper meaning devoid of alternatives” (ibid.). Giants, as a rule, may augur supreme docility, as gentle giants, or the opposite, as fierce behemoths.  But the “giants” before the primitives are not any giants.  They are ones who do not show their difference.  We noted that, according to the primitive’s “perspective,” all things are by their nature different.  These beings that do not show a difference, the “giants,” must therefore be covering-up their nature.  They are thereby assured to be dreadful, for they conceal who they really are, hence might be anything at all, indeed, the very worst, which “any way” renders “certain what is, in fact, a mere possibility” (Allegories 151), to wit, the giants’ frightfulness.

The primitive would much prefer to confront titans than he would to take on metaphors.  He would rather do battle with giants or, if he is Don Quixote, tilt at windmills that he believes are giants, than he would clash with language, which metaphors and tropes embody. Metaphorical giants, as incarnations of language, at once literal, “I am afraid,” and figurative, a “giant,” are not what they are, hence may turn, without restrictions, any which way, which “any way” is most creepy.  A real wolf, by means of her fur, effortlessly slips into the background, hiding while lying in wait for the little girl with a food basket.  But, if she does, she remains just a wolf, with the finite aptitude of a bête, potentially outfoxed even by a child.  This is not true of the metaphor “wolf,” which wolf may be a lone wolf with access to nuclear weapons whose limits do not exist, and hence is, literally, abominable to the one who confronts it.

de Man will go on to demonstrate that the fear of the primitive is as metaphorical as the giant that, metaphorically, represents this fear.  I stress here only de Man’s main point: the meeting between the frightened primitive and other men takes place between two rhetorical figures, fear and giants or primitives and giants.  The primitive is afraid of the giant, for the “giant” veils his essence, which essence is the capacity to veil.  But himself an “entity” (hence a metaphor), and thereby akin to these others, the primitive is equally afraid of himself.  Spontaneously expressing passion by appealing to the name “giant,” the excited primitive may well instigate that which all spontaneous bodies potentially trigger: anything.  The meeting of the primitive is not with the giants that are like or that reflect primitives but with the fever that the demand of language brings onto the scene.  And this demand is effected by the fact that primitive man, in confronting the “giants,” faces for the first time two different things that are the same (hence faces also himself, as in a mirror image), hence the desire for a concept that is not given by nature, by the denominative idiom.  Man emerges as an encounter with a field, that of the signifier, that he cannot mandate—since A is no longer necessarily itself it may turn out to mean anything at all when received—hence with others who can annihilate him when his own communication appears, to these others, disagreeable, threatening, stupid, unclear, feeble, and so forth.  In this confrontation with the communication by means of which he comes into existence, man learns that he wants nothing to do with it (communication), hence strives to intercept and annul it before it takes place.  In the opening to his study de Man had asked why the myth of the return to a denominative language, this “literal” language that is in fact the negation of language, is so prevalent within Western thought and literature (although not within Rousseau who, for de Man, merely comments upon the phenomenon).  Now he answers: the universe of a literal language is idealized because it rids man of the problem that society of men cannot master, that easily gets out of control and exposes humankind to the most horrid experiences, including the possibility of its own annihilation, which is language itself.  Yet the elimination tactic only recreates the difficulty that it would expel since, without the menacing disarray that language use augurs, the beings who might fend off the threat of obliteration, namely, men, are wiped out.

This is all made clear, de Man sustains, by Rousseau’s story of the eventual translation of “giant” into “man.”  Through experience, Rousseau argues, the primitive learns that the “giants” are neither more powerful nor more numerous than is the primitive himself.  He thus concludes that the two collectives are more or less the same, hence pertain equally to one category.  He grants the category the appellation “man.”  The quality of equality, or “equal to,” that the primitive bestows upon the “giants” via the signifier “man” is thereby quantitative.  The one (primitives) and the other (giants) are the same, men, because similar in size and number.  The quantitative, “more” and “less,” is transposed into the qualitative, “man.”  The quantitative, though, is itself a mere figure, best embodied by number, improper to the thing it figures.  Neither twelve rocks nor a dozen donuts possess the quality of twelve.  A number such as twelve may identify, as six rocks may be identified as that which is seven fewer than a baker’s dozen.  But identity is not equality.  Two men that are both men are not, due to this fact, equal, and you can’t compare the quality of rocks and donuts.  Number, as de Man asserts, is a “conceptual metaphor devoid of objective validity” (154).  A number is “valid” not in relationship to objects but to other numbers.  The number six, rather than referencing rocks, is three plus three, half a dozen, or not seven.

Nonetheless, the taking of number as a “literal property of things that truly belongs to them” (ibid.) is fundamental to the advent of man.  The metaphorical “giant,” at once fictive (as a giant) and real (as fearful), thus not itself, is transformed into the literal, the phenomenon “man,” at the moment the primitive “interprets the metaphor of numerical sameness as if it were a statement of literal fact” (155).  The giants, as soon as they are seen as the “same size as us,” are “us.” We are all human beings.  Safety is thus procured.  After all, the trouble caused by any one man who is endowed with Q capacity, however vicious and strong this man may be, cannot be greater than the ability of another, also endowed with Q capacity, to defend himself from this trouble.

The translation of the more or less into man, identity into equality, is for de Man’s Rousseau, as already noted, the origin of civilization.  Men are men because they qualify quantity, turning themselves into a quality, a property, man, which is without one.  Though “human specificity may be rooted in linguistic deceit” man, through the deception, disavows the “suspicion” that he is just an A that is not a B which is not a C, endlessly, a cat that is not a dog that is not a window, therefore is possibly nothing (156).  Of course, as suggested, the appropriation of calculation for equality cannot not expose the very thing that it seems geared to hide: the fact that man, without a property, anything at all, augurs incalculable awfulness.  The previously cited Rousseau’s articulation concerning the “first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society” (45), speaks to the point.  In order for man to be properly a man by virtue of a claim on property, he counts on that which is no property of man: the other’s simplicity or naivety.  A specific man may be simple; but simplicity is not a human property.  Second Discourse in fact stresses man’s diabolical cunning.  Man, as a property owner, is by virtue of a reception by others of his dictation (“This is mine”), which reception cannot be compelled or mandated, spelling the possible impropriety (the general non-acceptance) of the claim.  The owner may believe that other men are simple enough to believe that his “This is mine” proves it is “mine”; but he cannot be certain that he himself is not too simple and/or passionate to understand that simplicity is often a cover-up for guile.  The politics of civilization is always a self-defensive means to secure an I who emerges as unsafe by virtue of these same security measures.

The appropriation of number for being introduces the anxiety that leads human being to avow property in the first place.  The passion of the primitive is a spontaneous reaction which yields the fictive “giant.”  The fear arrives prior to speech and society and is thereby, according to de Man, innocent.  Conversely, the second response, the misconstruction of number into a quality, is calculating.  Its telos is that of establishing the “equality within inequality, the sameness within difference of civil society” (155).  The translation of “giant” into “man” repeats purposefully, politically, an original error.  Man is the “deceitful misrepresentation of an original blindness” (ibid.).  Through the deception the “potential truth of the original fear,” namely, that the man who speaks is also the being without a property or restriction, exposed to others who, also without properties, are unbridled, is “domesticated by the illusion of identity” (155).  Domestication, property, nation, subject—these grant asylum to a now tamed uncanny terror.  Civil society, in which all men are deemed equally men, but in which the division between rich and poor, happy and wretched, Black and White, men and women reigns, renders the existence of man a matter of common sense.  It thus assigns to men, to those who have deployed the logos in order to enfranchise wrong, the task of correcting the wrong though the same logos, foxes repairing the henhouse.  David can slay Goliath by exercising the property of the logos, that is, by arming himself: the fable of David and Goliath illustrates that small people can be as domineering as big ones, and thus lends itself to the idea that society—the ground of which is the supposed equality of those with the right to belong to society, those endowed with the identity “man”—is just and justified.  The origin of inequality is the “I can,” human potential, which promises the stabilization of imbalance.  This “I,” as an “I can,” the subject of pouvoir, enjoys the name of politics.

The fantasy of a literal language has proven so desirable throughout history because in it all things are, in Rousseau’s words, “kept apart” (qtd. by de Man 158-159).  A is A naturally, independently of B.  And as A and B are separated within a “natural” idiom, so would men be separated in civilization’s recovery of a “previous” state of nature.  The state of nature with a literal idiom does not refer to an earlier, even if fantastic time, but repeats a tale about civil society, since it is civil society that appropriates number for a property and sameness for equality.  Civil society casts all men as equal insofar as each is a separate individual standing on separate, fenced-in land.  Civilization, that is, is founded on the deceit—that men form a society—that hides and shows that which is most perfidious: the fact that man A is not properly anyone or anything for, insofar as he is a man, he is bound to other men who can take his place, so he better be on guard at every moment.

In order to define himself, thus to be certain rather than a mere linguistic deceit, men arise as so many private landowners, each potentially in possession of an articulation, “This is mine,” the validity of which everyone believes that everyone believes.  Man, the being without properties, takes language as private (hidden, privative) property, as a literal definition, one such as zoon logon echon.  If the enclosure or fence around a territory, as signifier, represents the same statement to all, then “fence” pertains to the subject who, by virtue of a common sense, is assured that his signs (represented by “fence”) mean or will eventually mean what he wills them to mean (it is a matter of common sense!), regardless of the addressee, of the Other.  For Same and Other are the Same, sharing the same understanding.  Men possess the quality of society, of the zoon politikon, insofar as society does not exist but as the “keeping apart” of individual property owners who would menace one another if they communicated even minimally.  When “this is mine” means “this is mine,” A is A and B is B, communication has been suspended, the negation of language accomplished, and man’s dream of equality completed, which dream Rousseau captures delectably: “private persons return to their first equality, because they are nothing” (Discourse 68).

According to de Man, in Rousseau, the foundation of political theory is not the management of “needs, appetites, and interests” (158 [this page number refers to Allegories of Reading]), yielding to a determination of the good.  Nor is it founded, via some idea of the aesthetic, on pleasure or displeasure.  The enclosure or fence, “This is mine,” generates neither the good nor the pleasurable, presumably that of feeling safe.  It instead drives the anxiety whose root is the fact that the means of generating being and well-being, to wit, making claims, also portends non-being.  No principles underlie Rousseau’s political, for politics’ purpose is security, the reason for which enjoys no basis in any principle, including survival, a point to which Hegel’s master/slave dialectic bears witness.  The man of civilization, “without his being aware of it,” through a kind of “mechanical prudence” ([this is] Rousseau cited in de Man 155), protects himself from other men by appropriating sameness or common sense.  A man is man is a man.  But since the requisite of the appropriation is absolute expropriation, death, which may occur when a property owner utters “this is mine” to another who, scheming, only pretends to be naïve enough to believe him, the drive for security can only generate the insecurity that commands greater security measures.  This, again, is politics: a specific security measure that, insufficient, demands an alternative security measure, more security, thereby more apartness.  When this apartness is called community, as when men of distinct properties form a larger group with novel properties, its proper name is not in fact community but identity.

Within the State, man is vulnerable in advance to absolute destruction, and thereby tethered to absolute prudence.  The last he practices mechanically, just as he speaks or performs rituals.  Each man, one equal to the next, is exposed to the machine-like, passionate actions of others and of himself, consequently to an end that, automatic, reactive, irresponsible, is inhuman.  Civil society iterates, through a conscious subject yet “without his being aware of it,” an original insensibility, that is, a prior iteration: a death drive (that, according to de Man, for whom psychoanalysis’s fundamental principles are unbearable, is rooted in language rather than the unconscious).  The politics that disavows or fences off the passionate automaticity of the social is itself automatic, and can only reproduce the horror that it would amend.

One must be careful and thoughtful, “prudent” and safe, rather than right or wrong, good or bad.  Politics is a “complex and purely defensive verbal strategy” (159).  The economy, as the foundation of the political, takes ownership of language, “this is mine,” in order to account for the communication that unsettles any economy, any nomos or oikos.  Man is Unheimlich, possessed by the return of a past (of the primitive) that was already itself a return.  Primitive man with a denominative language is the endless revenant of a civilization that wants to know nothing of its ghostly and ghastly beginnings.  This makes, according to de Man’s Rousseau, politics a “burden” rather than an “opportunity” (157).  The chance of the appropriation of language’s deviance is the self-annihilation that demands self-preservation.  Thus the burden: the political lets loose that which guards, and thus must guard itself from itself.  Politics guards the relevance of the claim on politics, which is relevance itself, the being meaningful of the man who makes the claim.  But the risk of the irrelevance that accompanies the gesture, as “private persons return to their first equality, because they are nothing,” foments the call for a still more prudent and relevant politics, another politics, hence for more danger, and then for still greater prudence or separation among “men,” greater danger, and greater prudence still.

Money, as the general equivalent, is the condition of capitalism; but the metaphor of more or less is the condition of money, that is, of any general and any equivalent, which equivalent is thusly tilted.  Man is born upon a crooked scale.  Any measures he takes to identify problems at once, in one flash, legitimize and multiply them.  Politics works to contain the wilderness that it introduces, to render relevant, cast as news or gospel, the insensible deformation of its own initial turn, which the relevant must forget to stand.  It must forget that which it never remembered or kept, to wit, that which is given within the ark of the archive, its turning, buckling, rotting, its leaking in and out.  Politics is the return to an original myth, to wit, that entity A is A.  All that is, including the political itself, can be identified and kept apart—as politics can be kept apart from language—making all that is possible a definite and enclosed property: property property property, therefore possibly nothing.  Politics is but a claim on man’s certainty and meaningfulness, which claim, because a claim, because linguistic, is wild, introducing a need for the more intense claims that would corral the first one, for a politics whose telos is its own perpetuation.

Works Cited

  • de Man, Paul.  Allegories of Reading.  Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.  Trans. G.D.H. Cole. Overland Park, Kansas: Publishing, 2018. 
  • —. Essay on the Origin of Language and Writings Related to Music (Collected Writings ofRousseau).  Trans. John T. Scott.  Hanover, NH: Dartmouth University Press, 2009.